Celebrating their martyrdomWe welcome the Vatican’s decision to beatify 124 martyrs who died in the Joseon Dynasty’s persecution against Catholics more than two centuries ago. Beatification is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church that a deceased person has the ability to intercede in the physical world when prayed to by believers; it is also a major step on the road to sainthood. Before Pope Francis’s visit to Korea in August, the Vatican granted the honor to those martyrs in appreciation for their noble sacrifice.
Beatification is one of the greatest moments in the history of Catholicism, something that all Koreans, regardless of their religion, should be proud of. Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung said he extended his heartfelt thanks to the Church, adding that he wanted to share the honor with all of those who endeavored to make the dream come true.
Korean Catholicism has a long, strong history, with Pope John Paul II promoting 103 local Catholics, including first the Korean priest Andrew Kim Dae-gun to sainthood in 1984. In a distinct contrast with other Asian or Latin American countries, where the local Catholic Church grew thanks to European missionary work, Korea has a unique history of indigenous growth. Much of the marvelous evolution of our Catholicism derives from a closely knit brotherhood that goes past the traditional boundaries of age and social status, as clearly seen in the case of Simon Hwang Il-kwang (1757-1802), a devout follower from the lowest class in the Joseon society who has just been beatified.
Their zeal for the propagation of the spirit of liberty and equality from the West led to unrivaled persecutions from the feudalistic order at the time. They had to experience unfathomable pain due to the ruling class’s tenacious antagonism and resentment against the Church. But the power of their unflinching faith, despite the levels of repression, led to a shining moment in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church. That could explain why Pontiff John Paul II called Korea a “land of martyrs” on his first tour to the “land of the morning calm” in 1989.
Those 124 people were not simply martyrs. They were pioneers in cultivating human freedom and social equality in the old regime. Thanks to their sacred sacrifice at the grass-roots level, the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) could eventually move on toward becoming a mature, modern society.
The 124 martyrs send a resonating message to our society today. Martyr Simon Hwang Il-kwang said, “There must be a heaven on earth and another one after death,” after giving thanks for the noble class’s generous treatment of him (before the government killed him). Korea today faces an ever-widening polarization in wealth and ideology, not to mention ever-growing discord between South and North Korea. We should listen to the conscientious voices of faith and courage the martyrs demonstrated in the face of death.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 11, Page 31